Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"No Quyckar Merchaundyce Than Lybrary Bokes": John Bale's Commodification of Manuscript Culture

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

"No Quyckar Merchaundyce Than Lybrary Bokes": John Bale's Commodification of Manuscript Culture

Article excerpt

In July 1560, Matthew Parker (1504-75), Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to John Bale seeking information regarding any "bokes of Antiquitie, not printed" that Bale may have had in his possession. (1) Bale replied that "havock" had been made of his library seven years earlier, when he had been forced to flee Ireland to exile on the Continent and had been "depryved of all that I had, by the papystes undre quene Marye." Bale, however, had since traced some of his books--"a great drye vessel full"--to Anthony Sellenger, who had purposefully acquired them by "wurke of the Devyll, that they shulde not yet come to lyghte." On Sellenger's death the books passed to both Sellenger's brother, Robert, and nephew, Warham Sellenger. Also falling to these two men, Bale informed Parker, was the continuance of the "devyse of the Devyll": Robert and Warham had since "disparsed and distributed" Bale's books "amonge the most obstynate papystes of all the whole contraye, to brynge them to naught." Bale, ever ready to act against papist plots, had obtained "a lettre from the quenes majestyes counsel," requiring the Sellengers to deliver the books to Bale, or to inform him of their whereabouts so that he could complete "an Englysh chronycle, whych I have begonne and not fynyshed." Moreover, Bale claimed that more than eighty of his books still remained in Ireland, yet his "myserable state and povertie is and hath bene suche, that I am able to do nothynge as yet, towardes the recover of them." (2)

The irony that his own library--which at one point contained more than 150 volumes, or, as Bale very practically noted, filled "ii great wayne loades"--was appropriated out of the havoc and dispersal of the Dissolution seems to have escaped him. (3) Collecting his books "in tyme of the lamentable spoyle of the lybraryes of Englande," Bale amassed his library--in contrast to the Sellengers' deceit--"through muche fryndeshypp, labour, and expenses," and it included books he had recovered "in stacyoners and boke bynders store howses, some in grosers, sopesellars, taylers, and other occupyers shoppes, some in shyppes ready to be carryed over sea into Flaunders to be solde--for in those uncircumspect and carelesse dayes, there was no quyckar merchaundyce than lybrary bokes." (4) Bale's lament that the Dissolution had converted the holdings of monastic libraries into "quyck merchaundyce," along with other themes of the Parker letter--papist conspiracies to conceal books and manuscripts, Bale's determination to thwart such conspiracies, and Bale's penury--find an initial rehearsal in his contributions to the 1549 text, The Laboryouse Journey & Serche of Johan Leylande. This text, a printed edition of John Leland's 1546 New Year's gift to Henry VIII, describes both Leland's and Bale's attempts--proposed as well as ongoing--to recover and rescue books dispersed during the Dissolution. Bale recycles Leland's New Year's gift, providing a running commentary on Leland's original prose and adding dedications to both Edward VI (r. 1547-53) and the reader, as well as a concluding catalog of English authors. Recent criticism has discussed the text in terms of its representation of an English, or possibly a British, nation, through its insistence on aesthetic, institutional, and literary definitions of nationhood. (5) In addition to the points made in these discussions, The Laboryouse Journey is of interest for several reasons. First, it details Bale's concerns regarding the preservation of texts, arguing the importance of preservation in terms of moral economy: that is, Bale juxtaposes the benefit manuscripts offer the commonwealth with the avarice that keeps these texts hidden. Subtending this opposition is Bale's construction of England as a nation whose borders are mapped by its treatment of manuscripts. This border-mapping takes place through Bale's adoption of particular ambiguities in mid-sixteenth-century commonwealth discourse: specifically, ambiguities of the terms profit and commodity. …

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